President Obama’s Little-Known First Visit to CofC

Many people know that Barack Obama made two high-profile trips to the College of Charleston as both the president and presidential candidate. But he also set foot on campus many years before he was a household name.

In 2002, the College of Charleston political science department decided to contact a national speaker’s bureau to find someone to speak  at the department’s ongoing political lecture series. After some discussion, professors Claire Curtis and Lynne Ford picked a young community organizer from Chicago who was running for re-election in the Illinois state senate.

His name was Barack Obama.

Curtis remembers picking up Obama from the airport that morning and feeling bad because the 6-foot-1 future commander-in-chief had trouble fitting into the front seat of her small car. But Curtis says Obama seemed to really enjoy himself during and after the political talk.

“He mainly talked about his community organizing in Chicago and how he got involved in politics,” says Curtis. “He was very engaging.”

Dozens of students attended the lecture, including  Ryan Velasco ’02.

Velasco said in a Facebook post that, at the time, he was a 21-year-old junior enrolled in a political science class and went to the lecture because attendance was mandatory. He said he and his classmates were blown away by their little-known speaker.

“I reluctantly go for this evening lecture in Physician’s Auditorium with the young politician,” Velasco says in the post. “And then…I am speechless, though I’m hard pressed now to recall the topic. I walk away that evening convinced this man will do great things. I know it.”

Years later, Velasco joined the Obama administration as the Deputy Associate Director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Curtis says even after all this time, she still receives emails from former students who remember attending Obama’s talk.